In a society where women’s bodies are constantly hyper-sexualized and objectified, it’s frankly ridiculous that one-third of women struggle to experience orgasm regularly during intercourse. Either due to poor sex education or just pure ignorance, a lot of people don’t even know the basic layout of the vagina (let alone how to pleasure one). Whether you have a vagina or are getting intimate with someone who does, it’s crucial to know how it actually works.

But let me clear something up right away — when I say vagina, I mean the canal that connects the uterus to the vulva. The vulva is actually the correct term for all the external organs that make up female genitalia, including the pubic mound, the labia majora (outer lips) and minora (inner lips), the clitoris, the urethra opening (where pee comes out), and the vagina.

Got it? Let’s get started.

1. The hymen is not a marker of virginity 

We’ve all heard about “popping your cherry,” but if the cherry is a hymen...there’s actually nothing to pop. The hymen is a crescent-shaped thin membrane covering part of the vaginal opening. This tissue naturally stretches and wears away during puberty, and the shape and size varies from person to person. Some people are born without hymens at all. Hymens don’t break, they stretch — allowing you to insert tampons, fingers, a penis, etc. Activities such as biking, horseback riding, gymnastics, or masturbation can cause the hymen to stretch or open as well. Sometimes this stretching can cause small tears, which may lead to bleeding. However, bleeding during the first vaginal intercourse is more likely due to a lack of lubrication or rough movement. Whether the hymen is present has little to do with virginity, because virginity is a social construct, not a medical condition.

2. There is no “standard” vulva 

Vulvas come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors, with lots of variation from person to person. Think of it as a fingerprint — no two vulvas are exactly the same. While many of us have been socialized to think that a healthy or attractive vulva looks a specific way, there is no such thing as a “normal” vulva.

3. Having sex does not make the vagina “loose” 

Another myth associated with virginity is that the vagina is naturally tight, and becomes looser after having sex, making intercourse less pleasurable for partners with penises (because it’s all about them, right?). However, the vagina is a muscle, able to contract and relax. The average vagina is 3 to 4 inches deep, but expands more than double that size when aroused. Blood flows to the nether regions, dilating blood vessels in the vagina, causing it to become enlarged. Afterwards, the vagina tenses back to its usual size. And all those Kegels? They do not actually “tighten” the vagina, but rather strengthen the pelvic floor, which are the muscles surrounding the vagina.  

4. Vaginas are self-cleaning 

Those white underwear stains? That’s discharge, secretions from the vagina that flush out bacteria and old cells to prevent unwanted pathogens from entering the uterus. Not only is it unnecessary to clean the vagina with soap or a douche, it is actually harmful — these products can ruin the delicate pH balance of bacteria. Just use mild soap on the outer vulva, and a warm washcloth for the inside. And don’t worry about making it smell “clean.” Barring any infection, the vagina smells the way it should smell, like a vagina.

5. Shaving or waxing makes it easier to contract an STD 

Pubic hair is there for a reason — to protect from outside friction and infection. Shaving, waxing, or tweezing forms microscopic wounds which allow bacteria, parasites, and viruses to enter. Hair removal increases the risk for contracting STDs transmitted via fluids, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, and STDs transmitted via skin-to-skin contact such as herpes and HPV.

6. Peeing after sex helps to avoid contracting a UTI 

Most people with vaginas have heard that they should pee after sex, but do you know why? The urethra is quite close to the vaginal opening and anus. During intercourse, some of the fecal bacteria near the anus can get closer to the urethra. People with vaginas have short urethras compared to people with penises, so it is easy for that bacteria to make its way to the bladder, where it can cause a urinary tract infection. Peeing within thirty minutes after sex can help prevent spreading fecal bacteria to the bladder, and therefore saving a lot of pain, antibiotics, and cranberry juice. 

7. Wetness does not equal arousal 

While vaginas are capable of lubricating naturally, some circumstances can make it more difficult. The vagina’s ability to lubricate is partially tied to estrogen levels, which means that lubrication can be harder after menstruation, during changes in hormones, while on birth control, or while breastfeeding. Arousal is both a psychological and physiological response, so any sort of mental stress can be a factor as well, especially regarding the relationship between partners. Inadequate lubrication can also simply be due to insufficient amounts of foreplay. Without proper lubrication, intercourse can be painful and even result in chafing or tearing of the inner vaginal walls, so consider using lube if getting wet is difficult.

8. Vaginal intercourse is not the primary source of orgasms 

This is a big one. People with vaginas are capable of experiencing orgasm in a variety of ways — and while some can climax through vaginal penetration alone, a larger percentage cannot. Orgasms can be divided into four categories: vaginal, clitoral, blended, and multiple. A vaginal orgasm is the result of penetration, with little to no clitoral stimulation, while a clitoral orgasm is achieved solely through stimulation of the clitoris. 

While the clitoris appears to be quite small, it actually extends internally alongside the pubic bone, almost in the shape of a wishbone. Trying different positions helps stimulate all the clitoral tissue and not just the head. A blended orgasm occurs from both vaginal and clitoral stimulation, and the multiple orgasm is exactly what it sounds like — one orgasm after the other. Aka pure bliss.

Cover image source: Elena Koycheva